Who is Ruth Gruber, and why should you care? Well, this now-99-year-old Brooklyn native can still tell a good yarn. And according to Ahead of Time, a documentary about Gruber’s life, her accomplishments make a pretty compelling story, too.
Accepted to New York University at 15 and becoming the world’s youngest Ph.D. at 20, Gruber defined herself as a writer—but to think of the woman as merely that is to blind yourself to all she achieved. As Gruber says, a crush on a college German professor “set the whole course”; she became enamored with Germany as well, and a fellowship allowed her to scratch the restless itch to study there she experienced while growing up in New York. (Her world felt so small, she says, that she “thought the whole world was Jewish.”) Her visit corresponded with the rise of Hitler, but instead of being repulsed by the man, she went to hear him speak, in an effort to “understand him” and what it was about him that won people over.
This compulsion toward compassion took Gruber around the world, where she documented previously unforeseen lands (while writing for the New York Herald Tribune, she became the first foreign correspondent in Siberia and the Soviet Arctic), served as special assistant to the Interior secretary during World War II, and was even appointed a general in her role as the latter, protecting her under the Geneva Convention should Nazis catch her in her secret mission to ferry Jews and wounded American soldiers to the U.S. Later, she returned to journalism but became deeply involved in the issue of Jewish displaced persons and their immigration to Palestine.
These experiences, and the rest of Gruber’s trailblazing professional life, resulted in 19 books and demand as a lecturer, which, as of the filming of the documentary (when Gruber was a mere 97), she continued to do. First-time director Robert Richman incorporates Gruber’s remarkable photos and films from her time as a reporter with present-day interviews with the woman herself, children and grandchildren of her colleagues, and various people who became dear to Gruber, some of whom are older than she is.
Throughout, Gruber’s fearlessness can’t be denied; in fact, it’s as if she never even considered her gender to be a hindrance. It helped that she seems to have had plenty of support, including a female editor who remarkably advised Gruber not to change her name when she got married in 1951. She still talks—dressed to the nines and made-up like she’s ready for a date—as if her many accomplishments are no big deal. When she’s literally telling one of her war stories, she notes, “That story, it has everything.” So does this doc.